Kim Stafford taught me that being aware of my surroundings — 100% of the time, notebook and pen at the ready — is key to being an excellent writer. In fact, I believe that writers have a difficult time filtering out information and then filing it into mental file cabinets that we can access later. Too many times you’re stuck somewhere with an idea about which you think “I CAN NEVER FORGET THIS ONE” only to realize, a mere few minutes later, it’s all gone. This happened to me all of the time, until I read Kim Stafford and realized I was doing it all wrong.
I became the sort of person who scribbled into notebooks in bars while getting soused on Manhattans — oh, the irony — as well as the person who wouldn’t mind transcribing overhead conversations in the middle of a dinner date. At some point being a writer isn’t something you aspire to, nor is it something you just do to pay the bills. Of course, even successful writers have aspirations, and if it’s not paying the bills then there are bigger issues. But some day, perhaps tomorrow or perhaps on your deathbed, you realize that you’ve been a writer all along. It isn’t a profession or even an avocation — it’s who you are in the same way that someone with red hair is a Ginger and a short man will never be tall. You’re stuck with it, like an addict who keeps telling themselves they can quit at any time. If you’re a writer, you know what this feels like — what it is to loll about for days, not writing, the psychic toll it takes. If you walk away from pen and page (or computer keyboard) and it doesn’t hurt and feel like withdrawal and make you feel like you’re crawling out of your skin after a while… then maybe you aren’t a writer. Maybe you’re just someone who has the ability to write well. I won’t judge you — you probably will make more money in your lifetime than those of us who are addicted to the beasts of our nature: words, crafted both hastily and lovingly. Do you know who has post-it notes and slips of paper and random half-thoughts written down on every conceivable surface? Crazy people. And writers.
But all of this is just a random segue into sharing some things I’ve jotted down while brainstorming for chapters for my book while on the MTA. A friend from graduate school sent me an email yesterday saying she’s decided to move to New York City after visiting and “feeling in her bones” that it was her place to be. I won’t and didn’t disabuse her of that notion — that was me, in 2004 — but I did send off a rambling opinion of the things one needs in order to get started in this city. Money wasn’t one of them. Chutzpah was. There are things you think you need so much of upon arrival that end up being the least valuable things you have in your possession. Money helps, yes, but it’s weak currency compared to a willingness to be the boldest version of yourself you ever though could exist, because even that boldest self is mild by Manhattan standards and if you don’t up the ante you won’t get anywhere but on a bus back to Ohio.
In any case. Selected random notes:
- It’s never that you’re “going to be” okay. You’re okay this very instant.
- It’s okay to walk away from money if it means you’ll maintain your integrity.
- Make some lines you won’t cross. But realize that your lines may freak other people out and other people will think your lines don’t go far enough. But they’re your lines, and you get to decide where they are, and there is no reason good enough to have to explain yourself about their location.
- There’s no shame in accepting charity, so long as you intend it to be temporary and only when there are no other choices. Do not accept charity if you intend to stay at the beginning of your journey for a long time. It’s best to find another journey that will allow you to move forward instead of treading water.
- Never turn down a job interview or a date. It’s only one or two hours of your life. Meet in a public place to stay safe, but other than that, you can afford an hour for the potential alone.
- (From my brother) you never know when you’ll meet the person who will change your life forever.
- Find interesting and intelligent people and spend as much time with them as you can.
- Stay away from people who are all talk and no action.
- If you have spare change in your pocket, give it to someone who asks if you have any. Even if you’re going home to eat ramen noodles for the 87th night in a row.
- What works for you may not work for anyone else. Listen to and mull over advice and suggestions given to you by people you trust and respect, but always go with what you know is best for yourself.
- If you feel like giving up, take a nap, see a movie, or call a friend to see how they’re doing. Eating candy bars and taking hot baths help, too.
- It’s okay to take time to recoup — a couple of days in bed followed by a gusto-filled attack at life is acceptable. Three days would be pushing it, though.
- Get a library card. It’s amazing how rich you feel when you have that much information available to you — and it won’t cost you a penny. (Unless, like me, you’re always forgetting when things are due and paying late feels. Don’t be like me.)
- Leave your house every day, even if it’s just to walk around the block, even if you’re up to your eyeballs in deadlines or job applications or haven’t washed your hair for three days. Hats are marvelous things, and so are baby wipes for those times when dragging yourself into the shower feels like climbing Mt. Everest.
- Say yes more often than you say no. In fact, say yes all the time, except when you would be putting yourself in harm’s way by doing so.
- Everything is dependent upon what you are willing to give up in order to transform your imagined life into your actual one.
- Give up the idea that you can compete with anyone in NYC. If you’re a woman, there will always be thinner, more beautiful women everywhere. If you’re a man, finance guys are your potential ball-breakes, But their inside lives may look old and crummy and terribly unhappy — you don’t know. All you can do is be you and stop worrying about everyone else. Chances are they’re so focused on themselves that they don’t even notice who you are. Don’t feel slighted. It’s a good thing, unless you actually believe in fairy tales and “arrangements” in which case you’re on a different wavelength that the rest of the world.
- Never, under any circumstances, spend any more time on the Upper East Side than you have to. It’s like rubbing your nose in a pile of dog shit to remind yourself that some people can spend $1,000 on a set of sheets while you found your duvet at the Salvation Army for $6. You don’t need that kind of reminder that you’re not materially successful. It also makes it very, very hard to accept that you’re okay right now.
- Small chances can turn into huge opportunities. Don’t ignore them if you have the time. Make time so you won’t ever ignore them.
- Not everyone can “make it” in NYC. But at least sometimes it’s because they had the wrong definition of “making it” all along.
So there you have it… random thoughts. I hope they were at least slightly insightful if not enjoyable. Back to my “real” work for the night.